Most people encounter family problems at some point in their lives; in extreme instances, these problems can be overwhelming, causing loss of sanity, or madness. In his play, King Lear, Shakespeare makes a direct connection between Lear’s family problems and his madnes. The main character’s mental state gradually decays as he has to deal with his daughters’ betrayal. Once a powerful and respected man, he eventually becomes a helpless and irrational individual.
The imagery and diction in Lear’s speech provide the reader with insight into his changing emotional state and show his gradual loss of sanity, as he confronts the problems that plague him. The images in Lear’s speech illustrate his irrational thoughts, which indicate mental aging, and his changing appearance, a sign of physical aging. In Act I:4, Lear wishes Goneril will give birth to a child that will cause “cadent tears (l. 11)” to flow down her cheeks and make her feel as if she had been bitten by a “serpent’s tooth (l. 14)”.
The painful and frightening imagery illustrates the anger that Lear feels; he is so mad that he wishes evil to befall his own daughter. His comparison of the pain he feels to a needle-sharp serpent’s tooth conveys the effect that his daughter is having on him. In Act III:2, Lear refers to himself as a “poor, weak (l. 7)” old man who is “old and white (l. 11). ” The imagery portrays him as a weak person who should be cared for, not ignored. The physical description helps the reader to picture a feeble old man with white hair.
By describing himself in this manner, he shows his anger that his daughters do not show him more respect. The contrasting diction in Lear’s speech also shows a definite shift in his state of mind. In Act I:4, he comands Nature to “convey sterility (l. 4)” on his daughter and “dry up (l. 5)” her reproductive organs. He wishes her “derogate (l. 6)” body would give birth to a “disnatured toment (l. 9)” of a child. Only a very angry father would wish such evils to befall his own daughter. He is very hurt and angry because of her actions and wishes the same kind of pain to torment her son that she may better understand him.
His unpleasant words serve well to portray his emotions. In Act III:2, Lear makes a similar request of nature, asking that she “spit fire” and “spout rain” (l. 1). He begs the storm to help him represent his anger through natural disaster. Only nature has the power to concoct a storm equal in force to the tempest in his mind. In Act V:3, Lear’s state of mind shifts immensely when he wants to go to prison and “pray” on his knees, “sing”, and even “laugh” (l. 5).
He speaks of “birds (l. 2)” and “guilded butterflies (l. ” in contrast to the devastation he mentioned previously. Lear’s madness has shifted from a destructive anger to a harmless insanity. He has abandoned his troubles, wishing instead to lead a leisurely, carefree lifestyle in jail. Although most people can resolve their family problems, Lear’s conflict with his daughters proves to be more than the aging king can manage. Through the king’s remarks, Shakespeare shows that something as trivial as a family feud has the power to transform a strong leader into a powerless fool.